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Hijacking the press

“A good newspaper is never nearly good enough. But a lousy newspaper is a joy forever,” an old wisecrack goes. It resonated in the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) conference: “Watching the Watchdog: Re-examining Ourselves.”

The tone-setting chore fell on Malaya publisher Jake Macasaet. “Media men raise hell whenever one of their own is killed,” he said. “Do we care about a  balut  vendor, whose daily earnings are fleeced by a cop?”

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PPI found an educator’s complaints against distorted reporting valid. The council urged the publisher to take action. “Nothing happened,” Macasaet recalled. We cannot lay claim to integrity if we have a thief in our home, he said, adding that journalists are “not a special class of people who must be given privileges.”

Cyberspace technology “hijacked” journalism, Vergel Santos of BusinessWorld asserted. The quality of professional practice is poor, said the PPI vice chair. Editorial crosschecks for verification, accuracy and fairness are now bypassed. The new technology opened media to “people altogether untrained, not to say clueless” about this tool. “This technology culprit now allows anyone to string words together, and to foist on the rest of the world misinformation and confusion instead of enlightenment,” Santos said.

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New technology flattened the roles on information exchange, South China Morning Post’s Raissa Robles said. Newspaper readers morphed into content providers. Internet ripped down  archipelagic barriers that once set Filipinos from Aparri to Jolo apart. “What was once a one-way street is now an interactive world.”

Poverty denies most Filipinos Internet access. “But what goes viral on the Net eventually ends up on radio, TV and newspapers,” Robles elaborated. Can journalists survive this wrenching transition? Yes, if they acquire, beyond basic news-gathering skills, the ability to make sense out of a pattern of events, she said.

Journalism’s ethical strictures often collide with popular appeal, noted UP College of Mass Communication Dean Rolando Tolentino.

“National news is “showbizified,” and show biz is “nationalized,” notably in broadcast.

“Trivial aspects of national personalities are highlighted (e.g., President Aquino’s love life). The prominent is trivialized, and the trivial is given prominence. The result is the  ‘dumbing’ of the news, and its condescending take on audiences…. Newspapers need to tell the truth—and sell.”

Over 500 students graduate yearly with mass communication degrees. But “a sizeable number of media workers do not come from these programs.” They learned journalism on the beat. This “uneven landscape of competencies” creates the need for more training in core values, Tolentino said. “A perennial catch-up game to meet professional standards” meanwhile persists.

“Masscom is the new kid on the block,” former reporter  Manuel de la Torre e-mailed from Idaho. Many outstanding editors never sat through masscom. Their “diplomas” came from the beat or news desks.

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Don Filemon Sotto was a lawyer and classical pianist. Recall Felix “Judge” Gonzales of Manila Bulletin, Teodoro Locsin Sr. of Philippines Free Press and Jose Luna Castro of Manila Times. They had a sense of news, command of the language from broad reading, plus fairness and love for the craft.

Those values hold whether the paper is churned out on hot lead or by the flick of a computer button. A broad liberal arts background, acquired from books or classrooms—plus bedrock integrity—is still the best foundation.

Sleaze in media and “marketability as a news value” are pressing issues, stressed Asian Institute of Journalism president Ramon Tuazon. Corruption permeates all levels, media members admit in roundtable discussions.

Graft even spun off its own jargon  bukol, ATM journalism to  didal, “There is no corruption  pag  hindi  mo  hiningi  ang  ibinigay  sa  iyo”  is one excuse offered.  “Everyone does it” is peddled to doll up corruption.

Some media groups, meanwhile, direct journalists to double as account executives, arguing, “A contract can legitimize the changing of hands of money.” Will it sell? Marketability has established itself in the news media as a major element of a story, Tuazon added. That is gauged by a rating system.

Indeed, some media groups direct reporters to peddle ad space or airtime to their sources, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines’ Rowena Paraan confirmed. They get a 10- to 20-percent commission. “Let’s face it. This is a conflict of interest.”

Some networks scrounge for loopholes to block employees from signing on with unions, Paraan added. “This contractualization of journalists… is a form of violence. (It) makes them more vulnerable to safety and ethical issues.”

It was difficult for his newspaper to be critical, a publisher said on the floor. Local officials were quite “supportive.” “The issue is about “corruption of the publisher,” snapped another.  “In rural areas, we survive by the patronage of politicians and businessmen.”

The journalist’s job is not “to take up the cudgels for local officials.” This was the heated reaction from the floor. Verification and context separate journalism from show-biz or cyberspace gossip. Speak also about efforts by many to stem corruption, Cebu Daily News’ Eileen Mangubat suggested. An independent study of wages would be useful. “That will never come from the owners…. ”

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta summed up these issues in one sentence: “It is more difficult to deal with media than to bathe a leper.”

(Email: [email protected] )

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